Edmund Wilson was an authentic man of letters, a rarity in the twentieth century. Primarily known as a literary critic, he was also a novelist, poet, playwright, historian, and social critic. Wilson was the son of a distinguished New Jersey attorney, a somewhat distant man who inculcated in his only son the virtues of decency and honor. The young man attended Hill School and Princeton University, where he became a close friend and adviser of the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and the poet John Peale Bishop. After service in France during World War I, Wilson began a career as a writer and editor for various journals published in New York, including Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and, eventually, The New Yorker. The latter association began in 1943 and continued until his death.
Wilson was already a well-known critic when he published his book-length study of literary modernism, Axel’s Castle. The first such study to treat the Symbolist and Freudian elements in literature as significant and coherent, Axel’s Castle was an eloquent defense of such writers as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein as well as a clear exposition of their methods and achievements. During the same period of time, Wilson caused something of a scandal with his novel, I Thought of Daisy. Based loosely on the character of Wilson’s great early love, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, I Thought of Daisy chronicles the life and loves of what in the Roaring Twenties was called a flapper, a young woman who goes from one man to another in search of enjoyment with little regard for the future or for the consequences of her actions. The novel shared with his later work of fiction Memoirs of Hecate County a frankness about sex regarded as shocking at the time of its publication.
Wilson was not particularly interested in theories of criticism. He had been taught by his famed Princeton teacher Christian Gauss that literature, like all art, is the product of particular times and places, and that it is a critic’s job to explain literary works in terms of their relationship to the times that produced them. Wilson therefore regarded his interest in the ideas and the history of his time and of earlier times as essential aspects of his work. In the early 1930’s, he traveled widely in the United States, looking for the manifestations...
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